Thursday, March 18, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 43 (3/18) -- Hespira by Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes is one of the best examples modern SF has of the power of second chances [1], with two books from what was then Warner Aspect -- the very amusing and light-hearted Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice -- followed by a single novel for Tor, Black Brillion, and then a spray of titles from smaller presses in the years since. For some incomprehensible reason, neither the two Fool books nor Black Brillion were notably successful; I can't see any reason why the SF audience would avoid a writer as witty and endlessly pleasurable as Hughes, but they certainly didn't buy all that many copies of those books. But Hughes has kept writing, adding new wrinkles to his Vancean far future with each book and becoming one of the most entertaining writers the modern genre has to offer.

(I'm not at all unbiased when it comes to Hughes; I loved the Fools books and did a 2-in-1 of them at the SFBC when I was there, and bought Black Brillion for the club as well. And I've enthusiastically reviewed the first two books in the Hengis Hapthorn series from Night Shade -- Majestrum and The Spiral Labyrinth -- as well as the standalone Template.)

Hespira is the third novel about Hengis Hapthorn, the foremost freelance discriminator of Old Earth in its penultimate age. Hengis is a man entirely of the age of science, a firm believer in logic and the essential rationality of the universe. So it was a hard blow for him when he learned that the laws of the universe oscillate between rationalism and sympathetic association -- what less educated types might term "magic" -- and that the end of his age, and the rise of a new age of magic, was imminent. He learned of this quirk of the universe in Majestrum, and was dragged bodily into the world to come in Spiral Labyrinth, but Hespira opens with Hapthorn back in his own time, with things mostly back to normal. OK, his AI "assistant" shows an upsetting degree of humor and independent thought, a vestige of its period spent incarnate as a magical familiar. And the formerly internal part of his mind that worked by intuition has been reified into the body of Osk Rievor, an researcher into the growing power of magic that Hapthorn still consults as he used to do when it was part of his mind.

Hapthorn is in a dark mood as this novel opens, taken to thinking about whether it would be best to end his own life before the rational world is replaced by one ruled by willpower. His current case was far below his ability; he was acting as a go-between for a rich man to ransom some valuable property that was stolen from him. Unfortunately, that rich man then scandalously broke the rules of proper conduct in such matters by attempting to follow and assassinate the thief, which led both sides to widen their battle (through the sort of criminal cannon fodder that rings of thieves already employ and rich men can hire) and both of them to incidentally decide to eliminate Hapthorn along the way.

At the same time, Hapthorn came into contact with an amnesiac young woman, Hespira. She's not conventionally pretty -- Hapthorn points out that she's nearly the opposite of his tastes in that area, and grumpily sour to boot -- but he feels a strong desire to protect and help her. So he takes her off-world to trace her origins -- if nothing else, it will be a workout to his investigatory skills. The path of Hespira's true name and path is not a simple one, of course -- it wouldn't be worthy of Hapthorn if it were -- and it leads through several human-colonized worlds before it brings them back to Old Earth for the denouement. And, unpleasantly for Hapthorn, sympathetic association is involved.

Again, I can be reliably counted on to call each new Matthew Hughes novel a triumph; he writes wonderful books that I enjoy massively. The Vancean flavor of the Fool books have been mixed with a dash of Wodehouse, a couple of jiggers of Conan Doyle, and a shot or two of Wolfe to form a bracing cocktail that is nothing but Hughes. Hespira in particular builds on its two predecessors to make a satisfying end to a trilogy -- and what SFF reader can resist a trilogy? Hughes is the writer I invariably mention whenever the question of modern underrated writers comes up; he writes the kind of wonderful, funny, thoughtful, exciting, zippy novels that should be massively popular and winning him shelves-full of awards.

[1] The other, to me would be Kage Baker, who was rescued from the wreck of Harcourt's quirky SF program by Tor close to a decade ago. And anyone who likes Baker would probably greatly enjoy Hughes, for that matter.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Haley Bonar - Holiday In Outer Space
via FoxyTunes


James Davis Nicoll said...

If I recall correctly, Warner's releases of Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice were more or less simultaneous with 9/11, which may have contributed to the poor sales of those two humorous books.

Why Black Brillion didn't sell is down to the perversity of SF readers, I guess.

Andrew Wheeler said...

James: The two "Fools" books were both published in 2001, but Errant was in March and Twice in August, so they were out into stores and through what's usually the strongest selling period for a book before 9/11.

No, the reading public cannot get itself off the hook in this case; they were simply negligent.

Johan Larson said...

Could the time for Vance-style writing have passed? Is anyone writing such things now and doing better than Hughes?

RobB said...

I've got the two most recent Hughes novels on my to read pile and they seem a lot of fun. However, I haven't read any of the Hapthorn novels. Do they stand alone enough that I could jump into the later books without having read the first couple?

Matt Hughes said...

The Hapthorns build upon each other, although each recaps the events of the preceding title. But you're actually better to start with the story collection The Gist Hunter and Other Stories, which contains the six Hapthorn stories that appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The first novel, Majestrum, takes off from the end of the last story.

And, Andy, thanks again for another warm review. I appreciate the encouragement. Maybe I'll find a wider readership doing contemporary urban fantasy for Angry Robot Books, the first of which comes out in the fall.

Andrew Wheeler said...

RobB: I'm not sure which you mean by "the two most recent" -- if that includes Template, you might as well start there, since it stands completely alone (and would work as a good introduction to Hughes's far-future world, since it comes at Old Earth from a very different perspective than any of the others).

If what you have is Hengis Hapthorn 2 & 3 -- The Spiral Labyrinth and Hespira -- then I would recommend at least finding Majestrum to begin with.

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